MFDJ 05/13/24: Charley Peace, Romantic Outlaw

Today’s Unruly Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Charles Peace was one of the most popular and romantic outlaws in his day. Born in Sheffield, England in 1832, Charley spent his boyhood in the show business atmosphere of Wombwell’s Menagerie, where his father was a wild-animal trainer. Unfortunately, the elder Peace had less success taming his unruly son. If earning a living honestly had ever been his intention, Charley gave it up following an accident in a mill that crippled his left hand and a leg. The resulting limp combined with his short stature (five feet, four inches) and a face that he was able to contort into grotesque shapes to give him an apelike appearance that he made even more intimidating by extending his maimed arm with a false one that ended in an iron hook.

Charley Peace – Would you trust this man?

Despite a visage that demanded attention, Charley began his criminal career as a pickpocket at fairs. If harvests were slim, he billed himself as “the modern Panini,” adding to his income by entertaining in pubs with jaunty tunes on a homemade single-stringed fiddle. A naturally dark complexion was enhanced occasionally with makeup that allowed him to advertise himself as the “Great Ethiopian Musician.” But musicianship was to never be more than a sideline. His real talent lay in creeping into someone else’s home and taking what didn’t belong to him.

Victorians called such people “portico thieves.” While he was one of the first of the breed, he was not the best. Between 1854 and 1872 he was in prison more than he was out—and when he wasn’t in, he was the subject of Scotland Yard “Wanted” posters.

In 1876, one of the posters attributed a new crime to him: the murder of Arthur Dyson. Charley had lived next door to Dyson and his wife in Sheffield, but the couple found him so bothersome that they went to court to seek an order against his unwanted visits. In the face of frightening threats they moved away, only to find that Charley had traced them. As soon as he laid eyes on Dyson, he carried out the threats by shooting him to death.

Although eyewitnesses provided the police with descriptions and Mrs. Dyson identified him by name, Charley appeared to have vanished from the face of the earth. Actually, he was all over the place. In Hull he burglarized a gentleman’s home of silver and jewelry. In Nottingham he emptied a warehouse of silk. In London’s Lambeth he was so busy that Scotland Yard attributed his burglaries to a gang. When a rash of Charley Peace thefts broke out downstream in Greenwich, another “gang” was suspected.

From Greenwich Charley moved to Peckham, got himself a grand house that he furnished with only the best purloined items, and assumed the name of Thompson. Perceived as a fine gentleman by neighbors, he shared the house with his “wife,” a housemaid named Mrs. Ward, and her son. In reality, Mrs. Ward was Peace’s wife, her son was Peace’s stepson, and the “wife” was Peace’s girlfriend. Unknowing neighbors doted on them and found great delight in being invited for musical evenings. At these cultural gatherings the highlight was performances by their host on the violin.

Presently, residents of Peckham began reporting burglaries, many of which had one thing in common: if a violin were in the house, it was stolen. Coincidentally, Thompson’s collection of violins was growing. Eventually, he acquired so many superb new instruments that he asked a neighbor to allow him to store some of the overflow in her home. She did so not with suspicion but pleasure, and looked forward to being invited to Thompson’s next musicale.

The invitation was for Wednesday, October 9, 1878. Thompson played, accompanied by his “wife’s” singing and Mrs. Ward at the piano. A marvelous time was had by all. As usual, Mr. Thompson bade his guests a pleasant good night. For him, however, the night was just beginning. He had plans for burglarizing homes around St. James’s Park in Blackheath. The venture did not go well.

Attracted by a light in a window, a pair of constables on routine patrol suspected a crime was afoot. Taking cover in the bushes, they waited for the arrival of a sergeant and then waited a while longer. Patience paid off around two in the morning. “Just a moment,” shouted Constable Robinson at a hastily retreating man in the garden.

Charley Peace’s answer was two shots from a pistol. “Keep back or I’ll shoot you,” he yelled, running as fast as his gimpy leg permitted.

As Robinson gave chase, three more shots rang out. Despite bullets nicking his head and arm, the policeman closed on the fleeing figure and wrestled him to the ground. Searching the man, who said his name was Mr. Ward, the arresting officers found the gun, a set of housebreaking tools, and a pocketknife. In the days following they also discovered Ward’s true identity. With that known, Charley was charged, tried, and convicted of the two-year-old Dyson murder.

Then came a real shock. Awaiting his date with the hangman’s noose, Charley astounded the police by confessing that he was the murderer of Constable Cock in Manchester. “Sometime later I saw in the papers that certain men had been taken into custody for the murder of this policeman,” he said. “That interested me. I thought I should like to attend the trial.”

With an impunity that enhanced his image as a daredevil, he’d done just that, sitting in the courtroom as an innocent man was convicted.

“But what man would have done otherwise in my position?” he asked. “Could I have done otherwise, knowing, as I did, that I should certainly hang for the crime?” The unfortunate William Habron was promptly set free and given 800 pounds, with apologies from the Crown.

But that wasn’t Charley’s only amazing revelation. To the embarrassment of the Metropolitan Police he bragged that he had visited Scotland Yard on several occasions to examine the “Wanted” posters bearing detailed descriptions of his unique physiognomy, his presence going unnoticed by the surrounding officers.

Charley stook in the prisoner’s dock for the last time, his entire adult life having been spent in crime. Sentenced to hang, he sent his wife a funeral card:

who was executed in
Armley Prison,
Tuesday, February 25th,
1879. Aged 47.
For that I don but never intended.

Culled from: Bloody Business: An Anecdotal History of Scotland Yard


Asylum Inmate Deaths Du Jour!

The book Angels in the Architecture contains Accounts of the First Twenty Patient Deaths of the Northern Michigan Asylum at Traverse City between November 30, 1885 and September 30, 1886.  Here are a few of the deaths:

Female, age 36, single, native of Michigan
Occupation: domestic

“[She] was admitted to the institution in very delicate bodily health. Her mind was greatly impaired. She was extremely bronzed, and Addison’s disease was suspected. Her lungs were also found to be diseased. She only lived a few weeks. The autopsy revealed tubular degeneration of the lungs, enlargement of the liver, atrophy of the right kidney, and extreme wasting of the suprarenal capsules.”

Died: August 25, 1886
Cause of Death: tuberculosis

Male, age 29, single, native of Finland
Occupation: laborer

“[He] was admitted to the asylum suffering from delusions of suspicion. It was found that he had tuberculosis. The disease ran its usual course. The post mortem verified the diagnosis. The lungs were extremely diseased.”

Died: August 26, 1886
Cause of Death: tuberculosis


Female, age 80, married, native of Pennsylvania
Occupation: none

“[She] was admitted to the asylum suffering from senile dementia. She died a few months after. No cause for her death  can be assigned other than old age, as she presented no sign of acute disease.”

Died: September 2, 1886
Cause of Death: senility

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